Tag Archive 'Thoreau'

Mar 03 2011

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Journey’s End

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Eighteen months ago I leaned against a big rock, making one last entry in my field journal.  I was exhausted from a punishing hike across north-central Maine on a section of the Appalachian Trail known as the 100 Mile Wilderness.  Judy came along and took this picture of me.  Not very flattering, but telling in more ways than one.

I remember feeling both a deep sense of satisfaction in that moment, and tremendous sadness.  These are predicable sentiments at journey’s end.  But I also remember thinking that the easy part was behind me.  Now the hard part – the telling of the tale – lay directly ahead.  Or maybe it’s the other way around.

This morning I reworked to completion the final chapter of the Maine hiking narrative, thus finishing the journey in another sense.  The physical effort of hiking and the mental effort of writing are behind me now, and all that remains is publication.  That’s always anticlimactic.  So now the trek truly is finished.  Once again, I feel both satisfaction and sadness.

I don’t really know whether I hike in order to write or vice versa.  The two are so much a part of me that I can’t untangle them any more.  What I do know is that I love to hike as much as I love to write, and that journey’s end – actual or literary – always leaves a void in my life.  No doubt there’s another book in my future, along with another trail.  But there are times, like now, when it seems like a crazy way to live.

At midday I went for a walk along the Rail Trail despite a biting cold.  The trail had been groomed for snowmobiles so I walked in the tracks of those fast-moving machines.  Occasionally I stepped aside to let one of them zip past.  And it seemed like the perfect metaphor for the literary life – especially one steeped in wildness.  I plod along at a snail’s pace while the rest of the world races by.  How very Thoreau-like of me.  Am I the lucky one or a pathetic creature?  I know what Thoreau would say, but I am not he.

I’m still on the greatest journey of them all and have, as the old poet said, “miles to go before I sleep.”  That means I’ll be an old man before I can answer that question with anything approaching certainty.  Even then, I might not be able to sort it all out.  Perhaps it isn’t for me to say.

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Sep 01 2010

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Morning Walk

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Early morning walk on a hot and humid day.  A short hike, actually, up the local hill.  Just enough to break a sweat, get a few bug bites, and cough out the last of a head cold.  My dog, Matika, runs ahead and sniffs around.  She’s happy to be on the trail again, if only for an hour.  So am I.  It’s been a while.

Next week I’ll be footloose on the Appalachian Trail, doing some serious trail pounding.  But for now, this’ll do.  All I need is a little down time in the woods before going to work – a chance to reconnect with the wild before immersing myself in the world of commerce.  Yeah, this’ll do.

Already reddish orange maple leaves litter the trail.  Wood asters and jewelweed are in full bloom – summer’s last hurrah.  Temps in the high 80s this week.  This comes as something of a surprise.  Not that I’m complaining.  Probably the last of the summer heat.  The warm season doesn’t last long here in the North Country.

The trail underfoot is dry.  On the west side of the hill, forest shadows abound.  On the east, bright yellow sunlight cuts through the trees.  No one out here yet.  Just me, my dog, and my thoughts.

Thoughts?  Yeah, I turn pensive in the fall.  And while the leaf season hasn’t really started yet, it’s not too early to exercise the gray matter left largely unused since last spring.  One look at wood asters triggers it.  Not sure why.

Seasons change, the years slip by, and my body gradually loses its resilience.  But not my mind.  In fact, I’m a better thinker now than I was twenty years ago.  Not as fast or sharp, yet better.  I have more to think about – more dots to connect.  The big picture is easier to see now.  Much easier.

Thoreau once wrote in his journals that thinking seems to make people sad.  I think I know why.  Because all deep thought begins with an acute realization that nothing last forever.  And most of our energies are misdirected.  If the average person fully realized how short life is, he/she would spend more time going for morning walks and less time driving in circles, trying to get things done.  That’s how it strikes me, anyhow.

No matter.  Every walk, long or short, eventually comes to an end.  I step out of the woods a little sooner than expected and unconsciously pull out my car keys.  Enough fooling around already.  It’s time to go to work.

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Sep 30 2009

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Alienation and the Wild

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A month after hiking the 100 Mile Wilderness, I still feel the tug of the wild.  This wouldn’t be a problem if society weren’t pulling me in a different direction.  Oh sure, I have my circle of friends who know and love the wild as much as I do, but society at large seems to be disconnected from it.  And that puts every woods wanderer in a tight spot.

How can one maintain a connection to both society and the wild?  It’s tricky, to say the least.  I didn’t invent this conundrum.  Thoreau wrestled with it a hundred and fifty years ago, as did every other 19th Century woods wanderer.  Entire communities have arisen to address this problem.  Maybe I should join one.  But no, beneath every such community lurks a religious, social or political agenda of some sort.  And the one thing the wild teaches you is to go your own way.

A wild animal is, by definition, one that isn’t caged.  Same goes for a man or woman.  I ran wild for a couple weeks in the Maine Woods.  Now here I am, hustling to make a buck, promoting my so-called literary career, and trying my best to treat others decently in the process.  I get up every morning and read the newspaper.  My wife and I discuss the state of affairs over coffee and breakfast, then we set to work on one thing or another.  I’m rarely bored by society at large.  All the same, I can’t quite relate to it.

The health care fight and other congressional debacles; pirates, scam artists, ad men and drug traffickers; rogue nations with big missiles they call dongs; lawyers and lies; broke desperadoes living in motels; angry demonstrators raising their fists for peace and love – the list goes on.  Homo sapiens is, above all else, a patently absurd creature.  Am I any different?  Of course not, but at least I know what a fool I am.  Most people take themselves way too seriously.

Perhaps the word “alienation” is too strong.  It’s more of an inner tension, really, between conflicting interests and realities.  Don’t get me wrong.  I like being clean, dry and warm.  I like waking up next to my wife in a soft bed, making myself a cup of coffee with the mere push of a button, and eating whatever I feel like eating.  This cushy, utterly civilized life has its amenities, no doubt.  But there are times when my gut reacts violently to it.  There are times when I read something and feel an overwhelming desire to throw up.

Maybe it’s just the printer’s ink.  Maybe it’s those perfumed swatches inserted in newspapers and magazines that are making me sick.  Maybe I should stop reading altogether, go crawl into a hole and stay there.  But no, denial won’t resolve this matter.  Somehow, someway, I’ve got to bring the wild home and keep it there.  Somehow I have to bring society and the wild together.  Good luck with that!  Thoreau couldn’t do it.  What makes me think I can?

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Nov 21 2008

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Two Realities

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As a lover of all things wild, I find myself torn nearly every day by two distinct realities: the economic and the natural.  Theoretically, there is no conflict between the two since economics mimics the rules of survival laid out by nature, and nature follows the basic principles of economics as it goes about its affairs.  But on a practical level, the tension is palpable.

Henry David Thoreau, the patron saint of environmentalism, railed against what he saw as the crass materialism of his day.  “I cannot easily buy a blank-book to write thoughts in,” he complained in his journals, “They are all ruled for dollars and cents.”  Anyone who has committed large chunks of his/her life to writing and thinking understands this all too well.  While blank books abound in our day and age, the time to actually sit down and write something in them remains a precious commodity.  Writing, ruminating, walking, or merely observing wild nature – all the activities we associate with that Concord nonconformist require time, money and energy that could be devoted to earning a living.

Yesterday I mentioned to a shopkeeper that I might have to curtail my writing when my wife retires, that opening a bookshop remains my fallback plan if I can’t generate enough money writing.  “Why can’t you do both?” he asked, then I asked him what he does other than run his business.  He fell silent.  Yes, I did a little writing while running a bookstore back in the 1980s, but nothing compared to what I’ve written since then, while working part time and relying on my wife’s income.  I didn’t get into the woods much back then, either.  We all make choices, and often those choices are heavily influenced by economic necessity.

When I was a kid, I dreamed of having a cabin in the woods not all that different from Thoreau’s shack on Walden Pond.  Nowadays I see that cabin as something that competes with my writing as well as my wife’s own cost-dependent desires.  Everything requires money, and while I could build that cabin cheap enough, I haven’t the land upon which to put it.  Keep in mind the fact that Thoreau built his cabin on land owned by his friend Ralph Waldo Emerson, who shared the same dream.  Emerson was too busy writing and lecturing for a living to follow through on his own cabin dream so Henry did it for him.  So much for self-reliance.

The problem here, of course, is that I’m trying to be a nature writer much like both Emerson and Thoreau.  Not a journalist, a biologist, or anything practical like that, but one who delves deeply into the wild then writes down whatever comes to mind.  Truth is, there has never been much market demand for this kind of thing.  During the better part of his life, Thoreau supported himself by surveying land and running his father’s pencil factory.  Short of an inheritance or a hefty trust fund, we all make hard choices.

The choices we make in life reflect our core values.  This is true for both individuals and society at large.  The tension between the aesthetics of the wild and material well being is as fundamental as the water we drink, the land we walk, and the air we breathe.  There is no getting around this.  At all levels, we make choices that determine the fate of both our selves and the global community.  And this is why every ideology contains at least one lie.  Theory never matches practicality.  Theoretically, we can have it all.  Realistically, something has to give.

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